The other day, like so many Americans, I completed my census form. The process got me thinking about one of the more interesting pieces of data from the 2000 census: nearly 40% of the people who lived in New York City were born in other nations. I suspect those numbers will either remain the same or increase with the 2010 census. When you add illegal aliens, foreign tourists and international students, it is safe to say that when the city that never sleeps finally goes to bed each night, most of the people closing their eyes at one time lived in another nation.
While anti-immigrant fervor rose for a while after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, I believe, at least here in New York, those xenophobic urges have receded. This is the most diverse city on the planet. Rather than the ever simmering "melting pot," New York is, as Mayor David Dinkins often termed it, a "gorgeous mosaic." Like tiles in a mosaic, each community retains its distinct character, but when you step back to take in the larger picture, the city's amazing shape and texture forms an indelible image of great beauty.
We did not get here easily, and tensions will always remain, but racism and nativism operate against a backdrop of tolerance and even appreciation. New Yorkers are proud of the diversity of this place and the fact that so many people from so many places live here together in peace. It may not be perfect harmony, but we appear to have left behind the race riots and religious wars of the past.
New York historically has played the role of the nation's key point of entry. Successive waves of immigrants have landed here, put their mark on the city and either moved on or moved up. The governing elite of this city is a changing panorama. Look at the people who have held high office in New York City over the past several years: Bloomberg, Gottbaum, Thompson, de Blasio, Liu and Quinn. Similar patterns can be found in finance, media, health care and academia. Go to the world's other great cities in Europe and Asia -- if you, your parents and your grandparents weren't born there, you might be a welcomed visitor, but don't expect to become a member of the club. In New York, the folks that are initially denied entrance to the club eventually end up buying the place.
One of the central facts of modern economic development is what demographers call a demographic transition. As developing nations become developed, population trends change. People stop viewing their children as economic necessities. Parents no longer fear that most of their children will die as they grow older and no longer need them to work the farm or provide them with social security during old age. In the developed world we have children for the emotional rewards they bring rather than for their earning power. The result is that we have fewer children, and in many developed nations, the population is shrinking. Japan is losing population, and without immigration, parts of the United States would be shrinking as well.
Last week, Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham proposed an immigration reform that President Obama said "should be the basis for moving forward." It provides a pathway for illegal immigrants to eventually obtain legal status, requires a national identity card and biases new immigration toward highly educated and skilled foreigners.
As the health care debate fades from public view, expect for immigration to once again find its place on the policy agenda. Immigration is important for New York City. Around here there is a deep understanding of the economic importance of foreign visitors, businesses, students and residents. That recognition may be a bit harder to find west of the Hudson, but I think it is present throughout the country. While I am not arguing for limitless immigration without rules, I think it is time to recognize that this nation's ability to attract the world's brainpower, talent and entrepreneurship is absolutely essential to our long-term prosperity.
Why is immigration so important to economic well being? In order to answer this question, the issue of immigration needs to be understood in the context of this nation's long-term role in the global economy. Our three hundred million people cannot possibly overcome the sheer human force of China and India. What is America's unique long-term role in the global market place? We will be the place that specializes in brainpower and creativity. We need to attract the best creative and scientific talent in the world and welcome them to America. The freedom this country offers is not just a political principle but an economic asset. Our way of life, entertainment, educational and natural resources can make this the best place on Earth to live, work and play. New York City is proof positive of this concept. From Main Street in Queens to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx- to Broadway -- the street I am looking at right now -- this city is built on the brains, the brawn and the energy of generations of immigrants.
To attract the brainpower and talent we need, we must make it easier for people with driven and talent to come here and stay. That is the promise of the Schumer-Graham proposal. If it gains the political traction it deserves, it will be one of the most encouraging developments on this issue in many years.
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